Defending charities 1 – why Panorama really did warrant criticism

Howard Lake | 26 February 2014 | Blogs

All in a Good Cause sign stuck to a red collecting bucket.
Still from BBC Panorama programme on charities

Now that the dust has settled on the Panorama ‘investigation’ of charities last year, I think it’s time call it out for what it was, without fear of being labeled as making a knee-jerk, typically defensive charity sector reaction to any kind of criticism.
It was rubbish.
It was. And I am not saying that because it criticised charities and, since I work in the charity sector, I can’t abide any criticism. I am saying this because it was poor investigative journalism.
The problem for us in the charity sector is that we are subject to such poor journalism over and over again and we need to find a way to rebut this without sounding as if we are being defensive and special pleading.
Panorama’s programme – entitled All In A Good Cause, broadcast on BBC1 on 10 December 2013 – claimed to present the “stories our best loved charities would rather we didn’t tell you”.
These stories were:

So what’s wrong with this? All seem worth investigating, even if some of the stories couldn’t exactly be described as newsworthy any more – for example, Panorama questioned the probity of Save The Children’s partnership with GSK because in 2012 the pharma giant had been fined $3bn in the US, but for offences that were committed between 1997 and 2004 (i.e. nine years previously).
Of much more importance however is that none of these stories was related to the other – they were separate and discrete items. So while each of these ‘stories charities rather were not told’ might have been worth investigating in their own right, together, they don’t represent any kind of coherent or integrated criticism of UK charities.
Panorama doesn’t bring its loose ends together to conclude that:

But Panorama is being very disingenuous, because, while it doesn’t imply any of this, it certainly allows viewers to draw these inferences themselves.
In fact, because it lazily cobbles together some unrelated stories in a charity-bashing bundle, did Panorama miss investigating a real issue – maybe some donors (not necessarily corporate partners) actually are exerting too much influence over a charity’s mission?
And here is the problem the charity sector faces when it tries to defend itself from media attention such as this. It is – or at least it should be – perfectly reasonable to attempt to rebut media hostility on the grounds that it is inaccurate, biased, or irrelevant. But when charities do this, they are accused of being defensive and not engaging with the issues that are raised.
In the case of Panorama, only the charities concerned could engage with the issues raised as these issues did not relate to the entire charity sector, and some of them did so very well in the programme.

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In the case of the implied attack on the charity sector contained in Panorama, there were no ‘uncomfortable truths’, just a lot of unconnected case studies

However, there was also the attack on the entire sector – the one Panorama didn’t state explicitly but allowed people to infer. Matt Sherrington in his Third Sector blog, said that “shooting the messenger does not dispose of uncomfortable truths”.
In the case of the implied attack on the charity sector contained in Panorama, there were no ‘uncomfortable truths’, just a lot of unconnected case studies delivered by a messenger whom the charity sector is not even supposed to question or confront (let alone ‘shoot’) in case we come across as knee-jerkily defensive.
Of course charities need to be accountable and brought to task by the media when they do something wrong. But we deserve better than what Panorama dished up. Lazy journalism is lazy journalism and shouldn’t be excused just because it’s charities that are on the receiving end.
It’s been more than two months since Panorama’s charities investigation was broadcast, so what’s the point of dredging it up now? Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated example of this type of attack on charities. Over the past 18 months, charities have faced an increasing level of hostility from the media and government – PASC enquiry into self-regulation of fundraising, media assault on charity ceo salaries (now picked up by PASC), the lobbying bill – that piggyback a few specific claims about charities on to a lot of implied/inferred assumptions, just like Panorama did.
If charities only ever try to engage with the specific issues but do not try to unpick the assumptions behind them, we will forever be on the back foot with our backs against the wall, taking one step forward and being thrown two steps back by the next ‘Panorama’. How the sector might do that is what I’ll explore in my next blog.
Watch the Panorama programme on BBC iPlayer until December 2014.